Why we are morally poorer for ignoring arts

Friday August 12 2016

Fareed Zakaria's In Defense of a Liberal Education. All over the world, the arts and humanities face serious challenges, especially to do with the funding of such courses. PHOTO | COURTESY

Fareed Zakaria's In Defense of a Liberal Education. All over the world, the arts and humanities face serious challenges, especially to do with the funding of such courses. PHOTO | COURTESY 

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The handwringing by Kenyans over the problems in secondary schools is surprising. Why are we shocked that our children are burning their dormitories and classrooms or summoning teachers to the assembly to inform them of their intention to close school?

Why the blame game between the people in charge of education, the school managers and parents? This tragedy has been long in coming. We indeed knew all along that this monster of indiscipline would grow and try to swallow the school system. How and why?

A few years ago, some brilliant fellows decided that the arts and humanities didn’t really add much value to education. They argued that these were soft subjects that simply made it easy for students to leave school with a certificate but without knowledge applicable in the real world.

Suddenly, the arts and humanities started disappearing from the school syllabus. Music wasn’t heard in the classroom any more. There were no more cakes and cardigans from the home science lab. History became history. Geography wasn’t necessary, maybe because one could Google directions. What was the essence of religious studies, some asked. Literature and language (English) were mashed into one.

But this erosion of the liberal arts and humanities, as Fareed Zakaria shows in In Defense of a Liberal Education, is a global problem. All over the world, the arts and humanities face serious challenges, especially to do with the funding of such courses. There is inordinate emphasis on the sciences, technical subjects and business.


Nearly everyone going to school today has to grapple with whether the course of study in high school or college is ‘marketable’ or not. Pupils as young as in primary school are told at home, in school or when visiting workplaces that they need to study only courses that would place them in the worlds of science and innovation, technology or business.

Fareed Zakaria shows in his book that this problem isn’t a recent one. He shows that throughout the history of education and thought in the West, liberal education has always had its naysayers. He notes that even in America, the land where liberalism has been celebrated for years as one of the greatest virtues, there are many who are skeptical about the value of studying, say, anthropology, including, guess who: Barack Obama.

But In Defense of a Liberal Education demonstrates, with examples from history and different parts of the world, that education based on the scientific, technical and business ken alone isn’t enough to guarantee progress and happiness for humanity.

There is no doubt that human beings have made tremendous progress in science and technology. There are innovations and discoveries in many fields that have made it possible for humans to tame nature and improve the quality of their lives. But, to paraphrase Zakaria, is the life of a Dorobo today better than that of his ancestor 200 years ago? Or, to ask a different question: were Turkanas or Tesos in 1800 poorer than those of 2016, considering that public discourse today seems obsessed with claims that we are more developed than we were just a century ago.

Yes, there is enough evidence, for instance, that humans have built machines that have made some work easier; medicines have been discovered that have cured diseases that were killing millions a few years ago; or that agricultural revolution has eradicated food shortages in many parts of the world.

But Zakaria cites a report by the Yale faculty issued in 1828 “defending the classical curriculum”, which “explained the essence of a liberal education as ‘not to teach that which is peculiar to any one of the professions; but to lay the foundation which is common to them all.”

However, Zakaria elaborates on the idea that the single most benefit of a liberal education is that it “teaches you how to think.” He says: “But for me, the central virtue of a liberal education is that it teaches you how to write, and writing makes you think. Whatever you do in life, the ability to write clearly, cleanly, and reasonably quickly will prove to be an invaluable skill.” For a man who earns part of his living by interviewing people on TV, Zakaria should have added that a liberal education teaches you how to reason.

The liberal arts discipline the mind to see the world from different perspectives and be morally sensitive to all of them. A good acquaintance with literature, history or philosophy prepares one to be skeptical when confronted with orthodoxies and dogma. A questioning mind is indeed the foundation of all great scientific or technological discoveries.


All those young women and men in ICT labs designing apps are motivated by a desire to scratch beyond the existing knowledge. A good arts curriculum privileges contest of ideas, borrowing of thoughts from other places and adoption of new ways of thinking and doing things.

The point I find so relevant in In Defense of a Liberal Education is at the end when Zakaria says: “Because of the times we live in, all of us, young and old, do not spend enough time and effort thinking about the meaning of life.

We do not look inside of ourselves enough to understand our strengths and weaknesses, and we do not look around enough — at the world, in history — to ask the deepest and broadest questions.”

The students burning schools, the teachers standing aside, looking on in horror, the parents angry that they will eventually have to pay for the damage, and the government seeming unsure what to do should remember that a good education teaches individuals to ask more questions than seek answers.

Can we say with certainty that our school curriculum is teaching the youth to ask questions about their lives? Do these young people understand the big moral issues of today? Or, do even their parents appreciate the meaning of that school business? And if we weren’t able to say yes to any of these questions, then what are we supposed to do to ask the same questions creatively enough?

Like Fareed Zakaria, I’d say, let’s teach the young ones the skills and knowledge to pose questions and agree to debate the same questions instead of resorting to violence to be seen and heard.